Sunday, December 07, 2008

MN Special Hockey is the Feature Story in Let's Play Hockey

The Eagle's Toni Boelter wrote the feature story for the Dec 4th issue of the national newspaper Let's Play Hockey.

It's available online, here's a copy for us.
Let's Play Hockey Feature Story, Dec 4, 2008, Toni Boelter

By Toni Boelter

Disabled Hockey District Director for USA Hockey/Minnesota District

If you grew up in Minnesota, you can remember the feeling of putting on your skates, bundling up and getting out on the ice for a pick up game with your friends in the neighborhood. The ice was not always that even on the outdoor rinks, but that didn’t matter.

You laughed as you watched your breath float up into the air, losing the feeling in your toes as you stayed outside just a little too long and heading home for hot chocolate only after you heard your mom yell for you to come in for the hundredth time. That was what it was all about.

And the first day of practice at the arena where you got your new jersey with the number of your favorite player, whether it was Neal Broten or Wayne Gretzky, made you feel like you were part of something that would define you even after you left the rink for good. You would forever and always be known as a hockey player.

Prior to 2005 in the state of Minnesota, that dream was not always possible for all kids. If you were born with a physical or developmental disability, the world of hockey was something that belonged to your brother or sister. You could be the stick boy, the equipment manager or another fan in the stands as you cheered for a member of your family. You did not have a team of your own or a jersey with your name on it. You were a spectator to a world that until that time had been something that other kids participated in. But for 60+ kids in the State of Hockey, that dream has now become a reality.

Minnesota Special Hockey began as an event that was developed through the City of Edina’s Adaptive Recreation Program. What began as a six-week program to introduce people with disabilities to hockey, has exploded into a full blown program that now boasts three teams with over 60 players and growing.

It is an environment that welcomes all people regardless of their abilities to experience that same feeling of the ice under their feet, the joy of scoring a goal and the camaraderie of being a part of a team as they raise their trophies over their head at the year end celebration.

Special Hockey is the place where a kid can be a kid, and in a world were doors are constantly being shut, this is the one place where the answer is always yes; yes we have a team for your child, yes she will be playing in games, yes we can’t wait for the season to start.

Minnesota Special Hockey has become that place where it does not matter what your ability is off the ice, because they are all hockey players once they hit the ice. On any given Sunday at several Twin Cities area rinks you will find a group of players with enough heart and determination to rival any team in the NHL.

Players may begin their journey with us using walkers or being pushed on chairs until they can find their legs. They also could be skating circles around their coaches. The skill level varies from player to player. What becomes so remarkable is the effort that each player takes to make sure that their teammates are succeeding. It is not uncommon to see players teaching each other how to pass the puck, how to skate backwards or how to perform a hockey stop that covers each other in as much ice as possible.

John was just six years old when he first stepped on to the ice as a member of Minnesota Special Hockey Eagles of the East. To say he won my heart that day I first met him would be an understatement. Born with Down Syndrome, John could charm anyone with his huge smile and warm eyes. (He also has a bit of a mischievous streak which I think I like the most.)

He had skated before and was not sure at first if he wanted to stick around for an entire 60 minute practice. What he was sure of is that he loved the game of hockey. It had been a part of his life since he was born. His dad was a hockey player, his cousins were hockey players and he could tell you who his favorite players were on the both the Minnesota Wild and University of Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey teams.

John has been the cheering spectator in the stands and the greatest fan in the world. What he had not yet been was a hockey player with his own team.

John had made it through the first few practices and had worked his way up to skating for almost the entire 60 minutes before it was time for his first game. He got to the locker room with his dad and laced up his skates. He put on all his equipment before donning his new jersey, No. 7, with his name on the back. He was a member of the Eagles and was about to take the ice in his very first hockey game against the Stingers of the South.

As the players took to the benches in preparation for the announcement of the teams, John was not sure he wanted to skate that day. But when his name was announced and he skated to the blue line, a roar of cheers came up from the stands as 20 people stood, clapped and yelled with signs bearing his name and number. It was at that moment that a smile formed on his face that went from ear to ear. The crowd was there for him. It was his turn. John was a hockey player.

That story can be told for so many of our players as they are realizing their dreams every single Sunday during the hockey season. Some of our skaters have been skating for years. Others are still learning. While one shift is competitive, another is for everyone to have a turn. Minnesota Special Hockey is about giving every person, regardless of ability, the opportunity to play hockey.

When Minnesota Special Hockey began, there were 27 skaters. Fifteen of those skaters used chairs or walkers. By the end of our first season, we only had one chair on the ice. Our skaters want to learn and will learn how to play hockey.

Minnesota Special Hockey exists for the enrichment of the athlete with a developmental disability. In addition to physical hockey skills, the program emphasizes the development of desirable individual characteristics such as dependability, self-reliance, concentration, willingness to share and personal accountability. The game of hockey is used by Special Hockey to develop within each player the characteristics that will help the player to be more successful both inside and outside a hockey environment.

We could not exist without the amazing support of our parents, volunteers and sponsors. We are fortunate to be supported financially by Section 108, 21 for Kids, Hockey Docs, the Eagle Street Grill and of course Minnesota Hockey.

We are blessed to have volunteers from Woodbury, Edina, Blaine and various hockey teams throughout the metropolitan area. We are grateful to the associations from all over Minnesota who have assisted with developing our teams, sharing our mission and spreading the word to all that Minnesota Special Hockey is here for everyone.

And finally our parents and players who are out there every Sunday, giving their all and reminding each and every one of us that hockey is for everyone! We are witness to that every time a puck is dropped, a whistle is blown or someone skates on their own for the very first time.

If you would like to know more about Special Hockey, or know of a person who could benefit from our program, please visit our website at or contact Toni Boelter, Disabled Hockey District Director for USA Hockey/Minnesota District, at or 651-307-0660.

So say it with me everyone, and we mean EVERYONE! LET’S PLAY HOCKEY!
Thanks Toni for a great story! I'll add a link on our media page to the LPH page and this post. See my next post for some coverage of today's Stingers/Eagles game, I think there's a nice picture of John in there.

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